My mother filled my childhood with terrifying food experiences. A native of the Ukraine, she relentlessly quested to make her children appreciate their heritage. She hated cooking, but nevertheless conjured up exotic dishes to put on the table: pickled herring, pickled tomatoes, rasolnik (cucumber barley soup), tasty meals that I would do no justice trying to translate from Cyrillic. Without a doubt, borscht was the most terrifying – the Bela Lugosi of Russian gourmet.
Borscht is not for the weak of heart. It is made from the blood of beets, which turns the soup and its ingredients the color of merlot, staining fingers and tongues in the process. An amalgamation of onion and cooked ground meat; shredded cabbage; diced carrots, potatoes, and beets, nuanced by tomato juice, salt, and pepper, the soup is heavy and dark, and it warms the stomach fiercely. My mother enhanced her recipe with pickle juice, which she slipped into the soup by carefully measured spoonfuls.
This was the food that heralded all special occasions: a good report card, a day spent in Central Park feeding the ducks, a snowy holiday. Borscht even came to be a personal request on those days when something was lacking – it was the colorful gap filler that warmed my stomach and eased my growing, insecure mind.
These days, borscht reminds me of Danielle, a friend from high school, whose long auburn hair and orange-gold eyes bewitched me in my junior year. Danielle played the bass and was friends with all the punks. We wrote each other countless letters and exchanged them in the halls between classes. We skipped out on lunch to play tag on Ocean Parkway, cars rushing past us. She lured me in, inviting me to sleep over at her house, which I did regularly because my mother thought sleeping over was an evil thing. Her parents let her have boys over, which my mother did not, and my heart irrepressibly leapt when I developed a crush on one of the boys and Danielle did her best to help me not look like a total idiot… though I’m sure I did anyway.
We spent nights under the gloops of her lava lamp, some soft album playing. Late at night, she slathered rose-red goop on her hair and mine, and as I rinsed my hair out in her bathtub, the water from my head ridiculously colored, I felt like I could have died a happy girl. When we walked to the corner store in the morning, our hair glistened like rubies.
In the winter, she wore fishnets under her ripped jeans, and for two winters I watched her scrunch up the fishnets, pull them gently up her freckled leg, and climb into them, wondering what it would be like to touch that leg, or even better to be her, Danielle, the Rhiannon of Abraham Lincoln High School. Now when I scoop up a spoonful of borscht and see that lovely magenta, I think of Danielle and something deep inside me draws tight. I last heard from her a few years ago, through a scrawled letter. Back then, I couldn’t predict that I would lose her friendship through the fallout of my error of loving a stupid jerk of a man. I only knew what I felt when her long hair blew in the breeze, how cherished I felt when I received that first approval that led to our friendship, how she and her boyfriend stopped me in the hallway and she complimented my smile.
I eat borscht by myself now that I live so far away from my mother. I get lonesome. Sometimes I call her to ask about the exact number of spoonfuls of pickle juice, and we end up talking for a while. She is nice enough not to make me feel guilty for leaving New York, a decision I have not regretted. I often think of Danielle. These days, I put sour cream in my borscht, trying to soften the memory of Danielle’s fierce pink hair, mixing the sour cream in until the soup is the color of a drug, and then I eat the soup quickly and wait for the drug to take effect.